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From Online Classes To Social Media Sites, Are Women Safe Anywhere At All?

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As the world becomes increasingly digital, more people access the internet for their work, education, activism, engaging in online discourse and campaigning for crucial social justice issues. While the internet has radically changed us as a society, it has both its cons.

Cyberspaces have become a new avenue for harassment for many perpetrators. Especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe, many young people – even children – have had no choice but to continue their education through online classes. This necessitates that these spaces be safe and kind for users. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Representational image.

What Is Online Harassment?

Online harassment is the “pervasive or severe targeting of an individual or group online through harmful behavior.” It is also known as cyberbullying and online abuse. It refers to the behaviour exhibited in an online space (social media, messaging apps, blogging platforms, etc.) that is invasive, violates someone’s boundaries or privacy, and intends to harm the target.

From a lewd comment on someone’s picture to stalking someone through their digital presence, online harassment can have severe consequences for the target and cause them mental distress.

Recent Examples Of Online Harassment

Educational institutions should be safe spaces for students and staff. However, are they truly as safe as we assume them to be? Many educational institutions try to brush cases of harassment under the rug to protect their reputation, valuing people’s perception of them much more than student safety.

It is easier for them to morally police students under the guise of ‘safety’ than it is for them to identify the perpetrators lurking within their institution. Moreover, the power dynamics within the school or college can provide considerable impunity to people in power, allowing them to get away with harassing victims without any consequence.

These institutions often focus more on putting up the facade of having a ‘controlled’ environment, insulated against harm from outside forces, and are reluctant to address the lack of safety within.

In June this year, news broke out that G Rajagopalan, a teacher at PSBB school, Chennai, was abusing his position as a teacher and harassing students. Alumni reports of his inappropriate behaviour state that he would comment on students’ WhatsApp pictures, ask them out for a movie, show up on video calls wearing nothing but his towel, among other advances.

Worse yet, this was happening at the school level, where he harassed minors under the age of 18 years. This event led to a series of other students from schools across Chennai coming forward with their experiences of harassment. This came to be known as Chennai’s #MeToo movement.

In the same month, a ‘prestigious’ university in Bengaluru came under public scrutiny for the negligence of its students’ safety. It all started with the news that the faculty of the university, protected by the anonymity of being an online examination proctor, was sending inappropriate comments to female students.

Already infamous among its students and alumni, Christ (Deemed-to-be) University received heavy backlash for the years of student harassment it has overlooked. From calling a student ‘baby’ to asking another to lower her camera while writing her exam, the news was shocking and devastating to discover.

Christ University did not comment on the incidents despite widespread outrage. Their Vice-Chancellor said in a video that students who did not engage with “media campaigns from vested political groups” were ‘role models’ for others.

An institution that must prioritise its students’ well-being has proven to be more concerned about its reputation and actively encouraged students to disengage from conversations about sexual harassment.

Finally, we must look at the recent example of online abuse of the ‘Sulli Deals’ hate crime. With communal and misogynistic undertones, the app auctioned Muslim women’s photos as ‘Deals of the Day’.

This left many women enraged, traumatised, and fearful for their safety. Despite multiple FIRs, letters from Members of Parliament and massive public outrage, almost no progress has been made in identifying the perpetrators behind the ‘Sulli Deals’ app. 

These are just some of the cases which received considerable attention – but online harassment is an everyday reality for many in the form of trolls circulating pictures, making lewd comments, deep fake videos, and hate groups threatening journalists and activists, among others.

The biases and inequalities of the physical world translate into virtual spaces as well. The veil of anonymity might even embolden perpetrators to act worse than they do without its security. 

What Is Jhatkaa.org Doing To Combat Online Harassment?

Jhatkaa.org actively looks for cases of online harassment and launches campaigns advocating for student well-being. Some examples of our campaigns include:

  1. Asking Christ University to prioritise student safety by launching a proper inquiry into identifying the perpetrators and conducting sensitisation workshops on workplace harassment.
  2. Asking PSBB school to take responsibility for student safety by incorporating long-term safeguards including sensitisation training and forming a proactive Internal Complaints Committee complying with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.
  3. Fighting communal and misogynistic crimes like the ‘Sulli Deals’ app by demanding a thorough investigation from authorities and asking the National Commission for Women to identify it as a hate crime.

We garner collective support from progressive citizens and use people’s power to pressure institutions to take corrective action. By amplifying these campaigns on social media, we spread awareness about online sexual harassment on a large scale. We have reached close to 2.5 lakh people through these campaigns.

We also host events like Twitter chats and Twitter storms and employ other engagement tactics to mobilise our audience to direct public pressure and hold institutions accountable. As part of our awareness-raising efforts, we write long-form articles published on various media platforms about different cases of online harassment and call readers to sign our petition.

Representational image.

We have also launched a Campus Safety toolkit that enables employees and students in higher education institutes to know their rights at the workplace.

Based on the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, it describes the institute’s responsibility to ensure students and employees’ safety and how complainants can seek redressal for their grievances. It simplifies legal language surrounding workplace harassment and uses illustrations and examples to explain what the law covers.  

To complement this toolkit with concrete action, we conduct workshops across colleges and universities in India. These workshops also explain what counts as online abuse and emphasise the issue as COVID forced colleges to continue classes virtually.

So far, we have conducted seven such workshops, reaching almost 200 students. We aim to democratise access to knowledge. 

Wrapping It Up

Jhatkaa.org strives to combat online harassment so that it is a safe space for all, irrespective of gender, religion, caste, sexuality, or any other intersection that makes up our social identity. You can support us in our fight for justice by making a small contribution that allows us to continue our efforts. 

Sources:

  1. Defining “Online Abuse”: A Glossary of Terms – Pen America
  2. PSBB school authorities grilled for three hours by TNCPCR over sexual harassment row – Edex Live
  3. Chennai schools’ #MeToo movement: A list of those who have been arrested so far – The News Minute
  4. Bengaluru: Student alleges invigilator addressed her as ‘baby’, sparks row – Indian Express
  5. Christ Vice Chancellor’s video – Instagram
  6. Sulli Deals: The Indian Muslim women ‘up for sale’ on an app – BBC News
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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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